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ashley cole, a case for the defence - steve e

Now that all our boys are coming home – Freddie Ljungberg’s ridiculously lucky penalty in the shoot-out against the Dutch being the last significant moment as far as Arsenal-in-Portugal-2004 goes – we can finally wish the lads a happy holiday (for what is it? Three weeks?) and look back on individual performances and what they might mean for season 2004-2005.

Starting with Last Man Standing Freddie, he seemed to have a solid enough tournament. He scored Sweden’s first goal, popped up in threatening positions throughout the four matches he played in, and was unlucky not to settle the game against the Dutch when his strike with just minutes left of extra-time struck a post rather than Van der Saar’s net. As long as he’s happy to stay at Highbury, he’s still got what it takes to make a significant contribution to the team.

The French? Not such an easy assessment to make in all honesty. Vieira’s niggling knee injury made a reappearance, which is worrying, though his drives through midfield when his team had to force the issue against the English in the opening match was reassuringly awesome. Robert Pires seemed to be a peripheral figure in Santini’s plans and played as such. Thankfully, the Premiership next season will be a perfect place for Bobbie to show the new Tottenham manager exactly what he can produce given the belief of his boss. And as for Thierry Henry? Three things became even clearer – 1) He can be a moody bugger for his country as well as his club side. 2) He can’t work with a striker that’s too similar to him in his approach work and positional play, and 3) He STILL needs to practice his heading.

While none of the French enhanced their reputations, the relinquishment of the Euro title could be just the sort of kick-up-the-backside they needed not to start the new Premiership and Champions League campaigns with the arrogance that can sometimes creep into their makeup. France’s loss was almost certainly Arsene’s gain.

Assuming that Jens Lehmann doesn’t manage to piss off the new German manager before he has actually been appointed, it’s a safe bet that he should be making more appearances for the national team in the next year or so. This should remove any remaining paranoia he feels towards the management hierarchy in his homeland, leaving him free to make the goalkeeping position his own in the national side as well as at Highbury. Again, a plus for the the boss.

Which leaves us with the two outstanding contributors from the Arsenal to the festival of football that was Euro 2004 – Igor Stepanovs and Sylvain Wiltord. Yes, it was a mighty hail and farewell to the former faves of the Clock End as the pair did their utmost to parade their talents before the assembled managers, agents and chairmen in Portugal. Did they succeed?  

In all honesty, who gives a flying fuck? The two players who did return from the Peninsular with their reputations soaring were, of course, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole.

For Campbell, after making the Teams of the Tournament in both the last two World Cups, recognition of his talents seems to be a given. But, boy, did he show the world exactly how a central defender can perform in Euro 2004. He simply refused to be beaten. Not once. In four games. By ANY striker that he faced. Never mind his ‘goal-that-never-was’ (’tho I suspect Sol  will. Enormously), his displays at the heart of a defence that was fully-stretched for the vast majority of time they played out in Portugal were, genuinely, awesome. One can only hope that Kolo Toure was watching, making notes and mentally preparing himself to try and match the Man next season.

And as for Ashley? Here’s just a taste of the reaction that awaited our home-grown defender on his return to London.  

“Outstanding. A superhuman effort… that marks him down as one of the best-full backs in football.”  

“His tussle (with Ronaldo) was man-to-man combat of the highest order.”

“England’s outstanding player… and should never again have to face accusations about a supposed fallibility in defence.”

“One of the best defensive displays I’ve ever seen.”

“A performance that almost beggared belief. In snuffing out Christiano Ronaldo, he was absolutely astonishing. Cole possesses marvellous technique, enduring physical strength as well as the requisite bottle to back it all up. At this moment, we are talking about the very best left-back the world has to offer.”

“Ashley Cole is a cunt.”

Now, granted, the ‘beggared belief’ quote comes from ex-Arsenal hero-turned-media-pundit Alan Smith. And Smiffy has been known to be quite sniffy towards some aspects of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal (notably, his reaction to the end-of-match mugging of Van Nistlerooy at Old Trafford last season). So his enthusiasm for Cole may be a means of getting back into the player’s good books at Highbury, having been banned for a period after his Old Trafford comments. And, it has to be said, the ‘Cole is a cunt’ quotation only came from my brother, who’s a dyed-in-the-wool-Manc and moronic to boot. But extreme reactions increasingly seem to accompany Ashley Cole, and as Arsenal fans we should really learn to cherish them.

However much we admire players such as Thierry Henry, the feeling persists that there is something unhealthy about having trans-national media icons playing for at Highbury. Our heroes tend to be our own, guarded jealously, and not to be shared with the fickle forces of world-wide celebrity and global corporate promotions. Now, suddenly, we have ‘the best full-back in the world’. But – hoorah and hussah!! – he’s loathed and despised by nearly every opposing fan in the country. We’re back on familiar turf with our Ashley. Hated and feared in equal measures.  

And it can only get better. His personal duel with Christiano Ronaldo is set to run for years to come. The new Dutch winger at Chelsea, Arjen Robben, looks like he has some divine skill and attitude to match. Perfect to act as a barometer against Ashley in the upcoming battle for London’s (and probably the Premiership’s) bragging rights. And in the Champions League, Cole will take his place in a team that deserves to be considered one of the favourites for the up-coming campaign. Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell have proved themselves to be the best in the country bar none. Now the whole team have to rally themselves to prove that they are, indeed, the best that Europe has to offer.

August just can’t come fast enough.